3/15/12 School board debates money request

School board debates money request
By Mike Wilder The Times-News 3/15/12     
Reprinted with permission.

   Alamance-Burlington Board of Education members agree they’d like more money from the county.

   But they’re not necessarily in agreement on when to ask for it and the best approach to getting it.

   On the other side of the discussion, reactions from members of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners to a potential request for more money range from caution to hostility.

   During last year’s local budget crunch, the county reduced its funding of the system’s operating costs by a little more than $1 million. Superintendent Lillie Cox is recommending that the school board ask the county to restore the money, which would increase local spending from $33.5 million this fiscal year to $34.52 million in 2012-13.

   Cox also recommended that the board ask the county to provide $750,000 for building and grounds maintenance during 2012-13. The money was also eliminated from funding provided to the school system by the county for 2011-12.

   Jackie Cole, the school board’s chairwoman, said the additional funding would be “not really an increase,” but a restoration of what the system got from the county two years ago.

   Board member Steve Van Pelt criticized the county for asking the school system to return money in 2010, and “then they had the audacity to take another million dollars last year,” he said.

   Board member Patsy Simpson said, “We’ve done everything we can in terms of cutting costs.”

   Board member Tony Rose said he didn’t “necessarily disagree” with other board members’ positions, but said he frequently attends commissioners’ meetings.

   Rose said he could envision county board members arguing the system still has “a healthy fund balance,” hasn’t always been accurate in its budget projections, and hasn’t developed a fund-balance policy as the county requested to govern how much of that money is spent and how much is kept on hand.

   Besides that, Rose said, he’s not sure the county has the money to give to the system, though, “I’m not saying that we don’t have the need.”

   Simpson said the school board isn’t obligated to have a fund-balance policy.

   “Who are they to dictate what policy we should write?” she asked.

   Van Pelt argued the board has “done what we said we would do” to spend money wisely.    He brought up the board’s decision to use $4 million of its funding reserves this year on technology in schools, saying those improvements are needed to educate students.

   Bill Josey, the system’s executive director of finance, said the system began the 2011-12 fiscal year with $21.5 million in its fund balance. The system designated $6.5 million to cover operating costs, with the school board agreeing to spend the additional $4 million for technology.

   It’s too early to know if the system will need the full $6.5 million to cover expenses, Josey said. The tentative 2012-13 budget calls for $4 million in fund reserves to be used.

   COLE SAID GOOD financial stewardship and belttightening are responsible for the system ending recent fiscal years in a stronger position than projected.

   While the system began cost-saving measures under previous superintendents, it also benefited during the current budget year from receiving substantially higher state funding than was assumed in planning the budget.

   Rose said he can envision the county — along with perhaps being in stronger financial condition by then — being more receptive to a request for more money a year from now. He said budgeting strategies put in place by Cox and Josey, the system’s executive director of finance, are expected to save millions this year by expanding on the current practice of relying on state money to pay for more expensive positions. The state pays for a certain number of positions, rather than providing a lump sum for salaries.

   Evans, the board’s vice chairman, sounded less than confident the county will have the money or agree to provide it to the school system, but said, “I don’t have a problem with asking.”

   Simpson said after the meeting her comments don’t mean she is committed to voting for Cox’s recommendations.

   COUNTY MANAGER CRAIG HONEYCUTT and county board Chairman Tom Manning said the starting point for considering requests for more funding will be to determine what revenues are available from property and sales taxes.

   Honeycutt said the county’s finances are improving, “but we’re still not anywhere close to the pre-recession level.”

   Without knowing how much money is available, and without a thorough look at requests from county departments, Manning said, “I’d be hesitant just to single out the school system” in making an assessment of whether the board can approve more money.

   Commissioner Bill Lashley had the strongest reaction against providing more money to the school system.

   “They could have all the money in Fort Knox and spend it and not give it a second thought,” he said. “The school board is out of touch with reality.”

   Commissioner Linda Massey said she’s open to hearing what the school system has to say, but sounded doubtful the county will have the money to give.

   “Don’t they still have that slush fund, or whatever it’s called,” she asked in reference to the school system’s fund reserves.

   Like Manning, Commissioner Eddie Boswell said it’s too early in the budget process to know how much money may be available.

   “Maybe we could get funding back to where it was two years ago,” he said, but that is far from guaranteed.

   Commissioner Tim Sutton also mentioned the financial uncertainty.

   “Cash flows, revenue-wise, are up in the air right now for both of us” he said in reference to the county and school system.

   One thing he does believe is certain: “I don’t think you’ve got a tax-increase vote on the board,” so the county will use only money from existing revenues.